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Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore
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Birdcage Walk

by Helen Dunmore

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‘’Who would look at this place and desire it?’’

‘’The Siege’’ by Helen Dunmore was one of the very first books I read in English, when I was 18. Since then, she has become one of the authors whose work I closely follow. Her stories are raw, with a distinctive kind of beauty, sometimes full of a kind of discomforting honesty as in the case of ‘’Talking to the Dead’’. In ‘’Birdcage Walk’’, she provides one more excellent example of Historical Fiction.

The original Birdcage Walk is a famous street in Westminster, in London, but here, Dunmore transfers it to Bristol. We find ourselves in 1792, in an era of violence, of political and social turmoil caused by the aftermath of the French Revolution. Our main character is a young woman named Lizzie Fawkes who was born to a mother of radical intellectual beliefs. This creates significant problems to her marriage with John Diner Tredevant whose conservative convictions and worries about the major difficulties caused in his job by the turbulent times, along with a dark secret of his past compose a suffocating environment for Lizzie.

I’ve always found the era of the French Revolution magnetizing and I haven't had the chance to read a great number of novels dealing with its impact on other European countries. In ‘’Birdcage Walk’’, the consequences of the Revolution and the beginning of the Reign of Terror blend in the narration in a coherent, beautiful way. We witness the spreading of the news in England, and the fear caused by the upheaval in the sovereign monarchy of the Albion. Not to mention, the dread of a possible war between the two countries. I was pleasantly surprised to see the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat and the trial of Charlotte Corday being included in the story,an event that continues to fascinate and attract much speculation

So,when you’re dealing with such an important, rich historical period, there's always the risk that your plot and characters may be overshadowed. This isn't the case here. Without presenting a large cast of characters, Dunmore creates realistically problematic protagonists, people that you can love, hate and connect to.

‘’You speak too freely.’’

The focus is on Lizzie. She is clever, innocent, but fully aware of her surroundings and the traps that lay before her. She is a very earthly, very realistic character. A woman who tries to balance her love for her family and her feelings for her husband. Diner is, to put it simply, a despicable character.I may sound too harsh or dogmatic, but I hated him from the very first moment and my hatred grew with each page. He is cruel, cold, heartless. He wants to control Lizzie to the fullest. What she eats, whom she sees,where she goes, when she smiles, why she smiles, everything. He is a toxic, suffocating individual. It seemed to me that between him and Lizzie there was only a physical, sexual connection, dark and unhealthy. This is a man who’s incapable of love of any kind.

The secondary characters are very well-drawn and very interesting.Julia, Lizzie’s mother, a woman who follows her convictions to the end, Hannah, the nurse, the rock of the household, Augustus, Lizzie’s stepfather, sensitive and with his head in the clouds, Phillo,the stern but faithful young maid, and Will, a young, radical poet, a dreamer. However, the character that casts a long,dark shadow in the plot, is Lucie, Diner’s first wife and the spectre that haunts Lizzie’s mind and marriage.

This brings me to the structure and the themes of the novel.There is the Prelude that I found so engaging.The story starts at a graveyard, following a middle-aged man and a striking discovery by his dog,The powerful presence of Death remains tangible during the first stages of the book, and the reader already begins to wonder. Does Dunmore give certain things away too early? Yes, she does and this adds to that gloomy, foreboding feeling of impending danger that shimmers constantly as the chapters fly. There is a distinctive echo of Du Maurier's ‘’Rebecca’’, the similarities are unmistakable as the first wife's shadow falls on Lizzie, the gloomy,haunting landscape that surrounds her, the dilapidated estate begging for an owner that slowly becomes a prison...

Those who are already fans of Dunmore's writing are certain to enjoy ‘’Birdcage Walk’’. The ones who wish to familiarize themselves with her work will find a perfect introduction in this novel, and a powerful example of well-written Historical Fiction.

Many thanks to Grove Atlantic for providing me with an ARC copy through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
( )
  AmaliaGavea | Jul 15, 2018 |
(In the interest of full disclosure: I almost quit this book as late as page 200 -- it wasn't that it was *bad* -- it's just that I found nothing interesting going on... Stuck with it, though -- and so it grudgingly earns that 3rd star, however unenthusiastically.) In the years of the French Revolution, Lizzie Fawkes Tredevant finds herself torn between the conservative attitudes of her husband (John) Diner, a speculator in property, who is embarking on an ambitious project to build a terrace of luxury homes on a bluff overlooking the Avon River near Bristol, England, and the radical circle of free-thinking writers and thinkers surrounding her mother Julia and stepfather Augustus Gleeson. Lizzie's sense of self is also challenged by the existence of Diner's late first wife Lucie, a French milliner, whose death in France is surrounded in mystery. -- As mentioned the plot thickens, to use an old cliché, around page 200, when the reader begins to suspect there is more to Diner than his political views, his edgy investment pattern, and his desire to keep Lizzie under his thumb and away from her mother's influences. Not a difficult book to read, but my time might have been better spent reading something else... ( )
  David_of_PA | Jul 14, 2018 |
Off to an interesting start but half way through I felt like I got if and diidn’t care to finish it. I am hard to please these day I admit. ( )
  triscuit | Apr 24, 2018 |
‘Birdcage Walk’ is the last novel by the incomparable Helen Dunmore who moved between subjects and periods with ease, setting the dramatic minutiae of people’s lives against the huge social events of the time. War, spies and, in ‘Birdcage Walk’, the French Revolution and how its impacts on a family in Bristol.
The novel opens as a walker and his dog discover a hidden grave in the undergrowth of a derelict graveyard. He reads the inscription to Julia Elizabeth Fawkes but subsequent research finds no information about her. This is followed by a short night-time scene in 1789 of a man burying a body in woods. We do not know the location, his identity or that of the body. How are these two things connected? For the first half of the book, I forgot these two short scenes until growing menace made me recall it and read faster.
It is 1792. This is the story of young wife Lizzie Fawkes, new wife of Bristol builder John Diner Tredevant and daughter of writer Julia Fawkes. Diner, as he is known, is developing a grand terrace of houses on the cliffs at Clifton Gorge, a development for which he specifies the best, borrowing against the potential sales. He is not keen on the company kept by his wife’s mother, seeing them as seditious socialists agitating in support of the French revolutionaries. He is aware of the potential cost to England, and his ambitious development, if the trouble in France turns into war. Lizzie is torn between two worlds, loyal to her Mammie and cautious about Augustus, her step-father and political pamphleteer, but aware her husband is under financial pressure. Diner is derided as a capitalist by Augustus and his writer friends. But Lizzie is proud, she chose her husband and remains loyal to him. But that loyalty and her young impressionable love for him are challenged. As news from Paris gets grimmer, Diner’s mood darkens. He must lay off workers, creditors chase payment, and he has night sweats. Insistent that independent Lizzie is his now, that he owns her and everything of hers, he is almost overpowering in his need to keep her close. She begins to fear he is having her followed and so disguises herself as she walks about town, lying about her visits home. And then there is the mystery of Diner’s first wife, Lucie, who died in France but of whom he does not speak. Lizzie fears he still loves Lucie.
This is a gently-written novel about tumultuous times in Europe, when the shadow of the unknown and fear – from the horrors in Paris to Diner’s secrets and his dark brooding nature – cannot be escaped. When the moment to run arrives, will Lizzie recognise it? If she does run, where to and who with? And will she know if she is running towards more danger? This is an expertly-written historical novel, rich in period detail, although the title is mentioned fleetingly and not referred to again.
Read more of my book reviews at http://www.sandradanby.com/book-reviews-a-z/ ( )
  Sandradan1 | Mar 1, 2018 |
This story, set in 1792 Bristol England, was my first introduction to the poetic and illustrative writing of Helen Dunmore and sadly, this book was to be her last. It opens with a superfluous "Prelude" set in current day Bristol in an attempt to set the scene. It is followed by a disturbing covert unmarked burial of a woman. Such an act provides such tension that the reader is forever wondering when the other shoe will drop.

Lizzie, the heroin of this story, has recently married a widower who is controlling and rather needy. He is a builder of grand homes and holds grand dreams of his own extraordinary success. She, the only child of a woman widowed very early on, had always found her strength through her mother's forward vision, drive for equality and mastery of language through writing. Lizzie is adrift with the passing of her mother resulting in the faltering of her own centering and compass.

Meanwhile, the French Revolution is raging on. The Terror is causing many to flee to other shores. The English are on tenterhooks and hoping that war does not reach its own shores. The crumbling civil society of France is a metaphor for the condition of Lizzie's marriage and the building project.

Much of the story is told from within Lizzie's mind which at times plays tricks on her and festers doubt within her. At the moment she believes to have clarity, the pace of story picks up quickly and propels forward. However, in this reader's opinion, the climax is not worthy of the build up to it. It's all rather understated.

I am grateful to publisher Grove Atlantic and Goodreads First Reads for having provided a free copy of this book. Their generosity, however, did not influence this review - the words of which are mine alone.

Synopsis (from book's dust jeacket):
It is 1792 and Europe is seized by political turmoil and violence. Lizzie Fawkes has grown up in Radical circles where each step of the French Revolution is followed with eager idealism. But she has recently married John Diner Tredevant, a property developer who is heavily invested in Bristol’s housing boom, and he has everything to lose from social upheaval and the prospect of war. Soon his plans for a magnificent terrace built above the two-hundred-foot drop of the Gorge come under threat. Tormented and striving Diner believes that Lizzie’s independent, questioning spirit must be coerced and subdued. She belongs to him: law and custom confirm it, and she must live as he wants—his passion for Lizzie darkening until she finds herself dangerously alone.

Weaving a deeply personal and moving story with a historical moment of critical and complex importance,Birdcage Walk is an unsettling and brilliantly tense drama of public and private violence, resistance and terror from one of our greatest storytellers. ( )
  KateBaxter | Jan 27, 2018 |
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It is 1792 and Europe is seized by political turmoil and violence.

Lizzie Fawkes has grown up in Radical circles where each step of the French Revolution is followed with eager idealism.

But she has recently married John Diner Tredevant, a property developer who is heavily invested in Bristol’s housing boom, and he has everything to lose from social upheaval and the prospect of war. Soon his plans for a magnificent terrace built above the two-hundred-foot drop of the Gorge come under threat.

Diner believes that Lizzie’s independent, questioning spirit must be coerced and subdued. She belongs to him: law and custom confirm it, and she must live as he wants.

In a tense drama of public and private violence, resistance and terror, Diner’s passion for Lizzie darkens until she finds herself dangerously alone.
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It is 1792 and Europe is seized by political turmoil and violence. Lizzie Fawkes has grown up in Radical circles where each step of the French Revolution is followed with eager idealism. But she has recently married John Diner Tredevant, a property developer who is heavily invested in Bristol's housing boom, and he has everything to lose from social upheaval and the prospect of war. Soon his plans for a magnificent terrace built above the two-hundred-foot drop of the Gorge come under threat. Tormented and striving Diner believes that Lizzie's independent, questioning spirit must be coerced and subdued. She belongs to him: law and custom confirm it, and she must live as he wants--his passion for Lizzie darkening until she finds herself dangerously alone. Weaving a deeply personal and moving story with a historical moment of critical and complex importance, Birdcage Walk is an unsettling and brilliantly tense drama of public and private violence, resistance and terror from one of our greatest storytellers.… (more)

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